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Hamlet: Q & A

Please also see Philological Examination Questions on Hamlet and each scene of the play for detailed study questions, production notes and resources.

Why does Marcellus think it is more fitting that a scholar speak to the Ghost?
As a scholar, Horatio would have a firm understanding of Latin, the language in which the exorcising of spirits would have been performed. Marcellus hopes that Horatio will have the proper Latin formulae to rid them of the spirit if it proves evil. Shakespeare uses the idea again in a hilarious scene in Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick, complaining about Beatrice, laments, "I would to God some scholar would conjure her." (2.1.233)

Which character says "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."?
This line spoken by Marcellus (and not Hamlet as is commonly believed) is one of the most recognizable lines in all of Shakespeare's works. For a detailed look at this quote, please click here.

What is the play within the play in Hamlet?
The play presented within Hamlet is called The Murder of Gonzago. The plot of this sub-play closely resembles the actual murder of Hamlet's father, and its primary function is to trap Claudius into revealing his guilt. This is why he also refers to the play as The Mousetrap (3.2.235). Hamlet's trap works, and a distraught Claudius leaves the play before it is finished.

How many soliloquies does Hamlet deliver?
Hamlet has seven major soliloquies:
"O that this too too sullied flesh would melt" (1.2.129-159)
"O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?" (1.5.92-111)
"O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" (2.2.549-607)
"To be, or not to be, that is the question" (3.1.56-89)
"Tis now the very witching time of night" (3.3.380-392)
"Now might I do it pat, now a' is a-praying" (3.3.73-96)
"How all occasions do inform against me" (4.4.32-66)
For a detailed analysis of each of Hamlet's soliloquies, complete with in-depth annotations, please see the links on this page.

What is the Bad Quarto?
Modern editors reference three texts of Hamlet: the Bad Quarto (Q1), the Good Quarto (Q2) and the First Folio. The Good Quarto is probably closest to Shakespeare's own manuscript. The editors of the First Folio removed hundreds of lines from Q2, while actually making some additions. The text of modern editions of the play is based on Q2. For more please click here.

Where was Hamlet studying before he returned to Denmark?
Hamlet was away studying at Wittenberg, the renowned university located near Berlin and founded in 1502. For more on this topic, please click here.

Is "nunnery" a euphemism for a brothel in Hamlet?
It is true that "nunnery" had two very different meanings in Tudor England. Modern dictionaries only list one definition of the word, which is, of course, a convent. However, if you look up "nunnery" in a dictionary of archaic words and uses, you will see that "nunnery" did mean both a convent and a brothel in Shakespeare's day. Its meaning as a "brothel" was colloquial, though, even in Tudor England. Despite the use of "nunnery" as "house of ill repute" in Shakespearean England, there can be no question that Hamlet is referring to the standard definition of the word a house of meditation for women who have devoted themselves to God. Only by entering a nunnery can Ophelia ensure that she will not procreate and become a breeder of sinners. As is pointed out in the Oxford edition of the play, "The injunction makes it clear that nunnery is not being used here in the sense of "brothel", as it is in "Christ's Tears Over Jerusalem" [by Thomas Nashe], for example, where a nunnery is synonymous with a college of courtesans (Nashe, II. 151-2)."



Just how did Claudius manage to gain the throne and not Prince Hamlet?
Exactly why Claudius succeeded Hamlet's father is not explained. Hamlet does refer to "the election", indicating that the new king has been chosen by his noblemen. This appears to be the case because the King of Norway is also succeeded by his brother, rather than Fortinbras, his son. We see this again in Scotland, when Macbeth is elected king. It could also be that Denmark practiced matrilineal descent, and Claudius became king simply because he married the queen.

In Hamlet's third soliloquy, what is the meaning of the word "slings?"
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them.
(3.1.64-68)
Some argue that "slings" is a misprint of the intended word, "stings". "The stings of fortune" was a common saying in the Renaissance. However, in the context of the soliloquy, "slings" likely means "sling-shot" or "missile". This seems in keeping with the reference to "arrows" - both can do great harm. For a complete analysis of this soliloquy please visit my feature exploring Hamlet’s great speeches.

In Hamlet's third soliloquy, is it "disprized", or "despised love"? I've seen and heard both.
The First Folio has "dispriz'd" (under-valued) while Q2 has despis'd. Most critics use Q2.

In Hamlet's third soliloquy, what does "the proud man's contumely" mean?
"Contumely" means scorn or insolent language. It comes from the Middle English word, "contumelie." The pronunciation is "kän - tyüm - le." For an analysis of Hamlet's soliloquies, please see the link to my articles at the bottom of this page.

How does Queen Gertrude die?
King Claudius pours wine to toast Hamlet's success and tries to persuade Hamlet to drink the poisoned brew. Hamlet refuses the wine, placing the goblet on the table beside the Queen. Gertrude is thirsty and, despite the King's plea, drinks from the cup. Dying, Gertrude exclaims that she has been poisoned.

Why does Horatio say "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane"?
Knowing that Hamlet is about to die from a wound sustained by Laertes' poisoned sword, Horatio attempts to drink the wine King Claudius has poisoned moments earlier. Horatio says:
Never believe it:
I am more an antique Roman than a Dane:
Here's yet some liquor left. (5.2.353)
Horatio is likely referring to Brutus and Cassius, the Roman co-conspirators in the death of Julius Caesar. The two "noble Romans" committed suicide when their defeat was a certainty. Horatio's willingness to die with Hamlet illustrates his bravery and fierce loyalty to the Prince. For a more detailed look at Horatio, please click here. For a comparison of Hamlet and Brutus, please click here.

Who is Corambis?
In the Bad Quarto, the edition of Shakespeare's plays that was compiled from memory by actors who had performed the works, Polonius is called Corambis.

Can you tell me about revenge tragedy as a genre?
The revenge play was a genre popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. Elements common to all revenge tragedy include: a hero who must avenge an evil deed, often encouraged by the apparition of a close friend or relative; scenes of death and mutilation; insanity or feigned insanity; sub-plays; and the violent death of the hero. Seneca, the Roman poet and philosopher, is accepted to be the father of such revenge tragedy, and a tremendous influence on Shakespeare. Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, written in 1592, is credited with reviving the Senecan revenge drama and it spawned many other revenge plays, such as Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, the Ur-Hamlet (see "Sources" section), and Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus, in addition to Hamlet. Please click here to read more about the revenge plot of Hamlet.

Does Hamlet appear as a martyr figure (or even Christ figure) in his final scene?
Yes, Hamlet does appear as a martyr in the final scene, because he has saved the soul of Denmark by giving up his own life and choosing an honest leader:
O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence. (5.2.345-6).
The final words of Jesus (It is finished) and Hamlet (The rest is silence) are similar, and Horatio beckoning the angels to carry Hamlet to rest reminds us of another biblical passage:
And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. (Bible, King James Version, John.20)
I would also say that Hamlet becomes Christ-like, only in the very general sense that through his suffering his people are saved. Keep in mind that, unlike Jesus, Hamlet's foremost intention was not to save his people; their redemption was an indirect bonus. His unsavory actions throughout the play have made it impossible for Hamlet to be equated with Christ in any more specific way, and, unlike the crucifixion (and, of course, resurrection) of Christ, which is center of Christianity, Hamlet's death is not the center of the play. It is actually anticlimactic - Hamlet becomes one of the "casual slaughters" reported by Horatio.

What types of love can be found in Hamlet?
Although love fails often in Hamlet, there is much love in the play. Ophelia loves Hamlet, Gertrude loves Hamlet, and despite his anger, Hamlet loves Gertrude. Hamlet also loves his father dearly, and this love prompts, in part, his desire for revenge. There is also love between friends, as seen in the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio.

Can you tell me about the blood imagery in Hamlet?
Blood is not really one of the primary motifs in Hamlet, as it is in Macbeth. Rather imagery of disease and rot permeate the play. Here are but a few examples:

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (1.4.100)

It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. (3.4.151)

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. (1.2.135)

Make you a wholesome answer; my wit's diseased: but, sir, such answer as I can make, you shall command; or, rather, as you say, my mother: therefore no more, but to the matter: my mother, you say, -- (3.2.315)

If the imagery in Hamlet interests you, the book you want to read is Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us, by Caroline Spurgeon.

How does the "poor Yorick" speech fit in with the rest of Hamlet?
Hamlet's depression prompts him to discuss death and nothingness whenever possible. Seeing the skull of the court jester that he so fondly remembered just reminds Hamlet further of how "the dust is earth" and how we will soon be mixed with that earth in our graves. Even "Imperial Caesar" turns to dust in the end. For much more on Yorick and the significance of the entire scene, please click here.

Do you pronounce the "s" in Fortinbras?
Yes, you do pronounce the "s" at the end. Please see Shakespeare's Characters A to Z for a comprehensive pronunciation guide to all the names in the plays.

How would you describe the revenge code in the play?
The code of revenge is what causes Hamlet most of his grief. The revenge code -- the basis of all revenge plays -- is the set of rules or principles that make it necessary for one of the characters in the play to seek retribution and avenge an evil through a series of bloody acts. Hamlet's soliloquy in Act 4 is his final contemplation of this revenge code that has troubled him so throughout the play. Please click here for more on this topic.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Hamlet Q & A. Shakespeare Online. 15 Aug. 2008. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/faq/hamletfaq.html > .


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More Resources

 Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?

 Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
 Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
 An Elizabethan Christmas
 Clothing in Elizabethan England

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Religion in Shakespeare's England

 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
 The First Critical Editions of the Plays
 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time


Quote in Context

Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes
Hamlet (1.2), Hamlet, alone on the platform

Hamlet's rhyming couplet concludes one of the most intense scenes in the play. Horatio has just revealed to Hamlet that the ghost of Hamlet's father has appeared on the platform and Hamlet is desperate to meet with the ghost himself, hoping to confirm Claudius is responsible for his death. Claudius's "foul deeds will rise"; his guilt will not be kept hidden. Read on...

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More to Explore

 Hamlet: The Annotated Play with Study Questions
 Introduction to Hamlet
 The Hamlet and Ophelia Subplot
 The Norway Subplot in Hamlet
 Hamlet Plot Summary with Key Passages

 Hamlet: Problem Play and Revenge Tragedy
 The Purpose of The Murder of Gonzago
 The Dumb-Show: Why Hamlet Reveals his Knowledge to Claudius
 The Elder Hamlet: The Kingship of Hamlet's Father
 Hamlet's Relationship with the Ghost

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Time in Hamlet ... "Why has the Ghost waited nearly a month since the marriage before showing itself? Why has the King waited nearly a month before appearing in public for the first time, as he evidently does in this scene? And why has Laertes waited nearly a month since the coronation before asking leave to return to France?" A. C. Bradley. Read on...

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 Philological Examination Questions on Hamlet
 Quotations from Hamlet (with commentary)
 Hamlet Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
 Analysis of I am sick at heart (1.1)

 Soliloquy Analysis: O this too too... (1.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!... (2.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: To be, or not to be... (3.1)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Tis now the very witching time of night... (3.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Now might I do it pat... (3.3)
 Soliloquy Analysis: How all occasions do inform against me... (4.4)

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Fat Hamlet? ... He's fat, and scant of breath (5.2). Gertrude's startling description of her son is not quite what we modern readers have in mind when envisioning the brooding young Prince Hamlet. But how can we explain the Queen's frank words? There is evidence to believe that Shakespeare had to work around the rotund stature of his good friend Richard Burbage, the first actor to play Hamlet. Read on...

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 Ophelia's Burial and Christian Rituals
 The Baker's Daughter: Ophelia's Nursery Rhymes
 Hamlet as National Hero
 Claudius and the Condition of Denmark

 In Secret Conference: The Meeting Between Claudius and Laertes
 O Jephthah - Toying with Polonius
 The Death of Polonius and its Impact on Hamlet's Character
 Blank Verse and Diction in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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The Importance of the Grave-diggers ... The dramatic significance of the Clowns (or Grave-diggers) is three-fold:

(a) to provide comic relief. The humor springs from the fact that the Clowns are unaware of their own errors. The First Clown, clearly the smarter of the two, tries his best to argue his point in all earnest, oblivious to the ridiculous mistakes he is making. Can you find specific examples of his blunders? Shakespeare enjoyed utilizing this type of comic relief and the character of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing is one of his greatest comic creations. How many similarities can you find between Dogberry and the First Clown? Read on...

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 Hamlet's Silence
 An Excuse for Doing Nothing: Hamlet's Delay
 Foul Deeds Will Rise: Hamlet and Divine Justice
 Defending Claudius - The Charges Against the King
 Shakespeare's Fools: The Grave-Diggers in Hamlet

 Hamlet's Humor: The Wit of Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark
 All About Yorick
 Hamlet's Melancholy: The Transformation of the Prince
 Hamlet's Antic Disposition: Is Hamlet's Madness Real?

 The Significance of the Ghost in Armor
 The Significance of Ophelia's Flowers
 Ophelia and Laertes
 Mistrusted Love: Ophelia and Polonius

 Divine Providence in Hamlet
 What is Tragic Irony?
 Seneca's Tragedies and the Elizabethan Drama
 Shakespeare's Sources for Hamlet

 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers